Straightline speed not always a good measure

Fast 40 times have earned some NFL prospects more money, but are a subjective measure of one's ability.

Updated: March 10, 2004, 11:54 AM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

During four seasons at the University of Alabama, wide receiver Triandos Luke totaled 90 catches, 1,072 yards and nine touchdowns. But in one afternoon at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis last month, he was clocked in the 40-yard dash at 4.30 seconds, the fastest time for any of the three dozen wide receiver prospects who participated in the event.

That lightning-fast time, along with a 38-inch vertical jump and solid performances in all of the athletic ability drills, certainly commanded the attention of NFL scouts. It probably moved Luke's draft stock up a round in the lottery. Maybe even a couple of rounds. What it didn't do, however, is catapult the former Crimson Tide star into the first-round.

Not even close.

Williams' lack of speed doesn't stop him from making great grabs.
On the other hand, Southern California wide receiver Mike Williams, the most notable underclassman to take advantage of the NFL's hastily revisited draft eligibility rules after the Maurice Clarett case, is rumored to cover 40 yards in only about 4.55 seconds. Maybe even 4.6 according to some scouts who have seen him play. But Williams rang up better statistics in '03 alone -- 95 catches, 1,314 yards, 16 touchdowns -- than Luke had for his entire career.

And make no mistake, the wondrously gifted Williams will go off the board early in the first round, probably among the top 10 selections overall.

So this question: What really is the difference between a 40-yard time of, say, 4.4 seconds and of 4.6 seconds? Not surprisingly, as in nearly all elements draft-related, the answer is a fairly subjective one. And certainly far more complicated than just attempting to mathematically discern the real-world gap between people running at those speeds.

That difference, according to one physicist, is between two feet and five feet, depending on whether the variable he termed "acceleration quotient" is factored into the equation. Of course, in an Olympic sprint, such relatively modest differences would be regarded as more like a schism. Sprint events, after all, are typically decided by inches and not feet.

In football, a couple of feet might not seem like much, unless you happen to be a cornerback frantically trying to close the gap between yourself and the wide receiver who just sped by you on a classic "nine" route up the sideline.

But even being as much as three-tenths of a second faster won't help Luke, or most other wide receivers, close the talent gap on draft prospects like Williams, or University of Pittsburgh star Larry Fitzgerald, another top 10 pass-catcher hardly noted for his speed. As NFL wannabes like Olympics hurdling champion Renaldo Nehemiah discovered in a brief fling with the San Francisco 49ers, speed alone can't overcome lack of basic skills.

People often overlook the fact that former Dallas Cowboys star Bob Hayes, whose career was heatedly debated during this year's Hall of Fame selection meeting, was a football player who just happened to run track, not a 100-meter dash guy dabbling in football.

"We time players in terms of straightline speed," said Buffalo Bills general manager Tom Donahoe, "but the reality is that our game isn't played in a straight line. So there's a bit of a fallacy there. And our game isn't played unimpeded, like a track meet, where you're just going to run and no one is in your way. No one is trying to hit you or redirect you. So the '40' is just one tool. It's certainly not the only tool."

That said, whether it is run on AstroTurf, a speedy rubberized track or on a lush strip of freshly-mown Bermuda grass, the 40-yard sprint is viewed by many prospects and scouts as a road paved with gold. Life in the 40-yard fast lane, acknowledged most players at the NFL combine workouts last month, can translate into a difference of a few rounds come draft day. And that equates, everyone understands, into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

We time players in terms of straightline speed, but the reality is that our game isn't played in a straight line. So there's a bit of a fallacy there. And our game isn't played unimpeded, like a track meet, where you're just going to run and no one is in your way.
Buffalo Bills general manager Tom Donahoe
For a lot of players, the road to riches is a pothole-pocked marathon, strung out over years of perseverance. And for others, it is a dash for cash, a frantic culmination of years of hard work suddenly compressed into 120 feet.

"In some ways, it's a run for the money, because it's the measuring stick that everyone talks about," said Wisconsin wide receiver Lee Evans, who posted a blistering 4.31 time at the combine. "You don't hear many people say, 'You know he ran that shuttle drill real well, didn't he?' No, it's about the 40, and a little time adds up to a lot of difference."

True enough. But how much difference is there on the football field between a player with 4.6 speed and one with 4.4 quickness? The most prolific wide receiver in history, and perhaps the greatest player, period, at any position, Jerry Rice probably never ran under 4.5 seconds for scouts. Andre Rison entered the NFL in 1989 timed at about 4.55 seconds. A decade-and-a-half later, if he were to run the 40 again, Rison would still clock a time in the 4.55 range. Scouts and coaches actually considered it a plus that he played his entire career at the same consistent speed.

"All things being equal, and they never are, you'll opt for the quicker player," allowed Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome. "But players aren't alike. You can't create a situation that perfectly evens the playing field and allows you to judge players without a degree of (subjectivity). Two- or three-tenths of a second, yeah, it's an eternity. But there are other factors involved."

Indeed, if one could take a player with a well-defined skills set and replicate the abilities in another prospect, the 4.4 player would almost always be chosen ahead of the 4.6 one. But that isn't real-life and, for NFL teams, not an option.

Williams and Fitzgerald, while not possessing the straightline speed of other prospects at wide receiver, have developed skills relative to the position that are viewed as superior. Both players possess the physical dimension now favored by teams, long and lanky and physical, and go after the football aggressively. They adjust nicely to the ball in the air, display exquisite body control, and have Velcro-like hands.

Their football skills, in essence, supercede any questions about their quickness.

But if football was played in a vacuum, noted Dr. Edward Koppin, an expert in body movement and speed who just happens to be a football junkie, Williams and Fitzgerald might be at a disadvantage.

"In walking down the street, two-tenths of a second is nothing, because it is pertinent to nothing," he said. "In athletics in general, that kind of (stopwatch) difference is a good yardstick in some ways, but we know there are a lot of variables. And one of those is that, some players are so much better than others, they can overcome the (speed) differential."

Translation: Mike Williams is a first-rounder and Triandos Luke will probably be taken a couple rounds later.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

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